As a two-touchdown underdog, 10th- ranked Clemson would rather not swim against the current and make waves before Saturday’s game with No. 4 Florida State.
If Clemson coaches and players were feeling dissed Tuesday, they disguised it.
“Going in as a 14-point underdog ought to be enough motivation,” said senior center Dalton Freeman, “but they deserve it.
“They’re picked to win the division, some people pick them to win the national championship,” Freeman said. “We’re just a team trying to get a win.”
Despite the substantial point spread, ESPN College GameDay will be in Tallahassee for the prime-time kickoff. It is the ninth battle of nationally ranked top 10 teams in Atlantic Coast Conference history, including the 54-7 win by No. 4 Florida State against No. 10 Clemson in a Bowden Bowl game at Doak Campbell Stadium 12 years ago.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Freeman said. “A lot of people go their entire careers without this kind of ambience with GameDay and 8 o’clock in Doak Campbell. It’s what you dream for.”
Clemson might draw inspiration from that fact that it has beaten Florida State six of the past nine games, including last year’s 35-30 nail-biter in Death Valley. FSU won the last game in Tallahassee, 16-13, on a 55-yard field goal as time expired.
“I know we’re going to be a big underdog going down there,” coach Dabo Swinney said, “but I don’t know anybody but Alabama and LSU who would not be.
“We’re not a great football team right now. If I were on the outside looking in, I would probably pick them, too.”
Swinney wonders how his young team will adapt to the hostile environment, which makes communication problematic. The three newest offensive linemen have missed time with injuries, though Swinney anticipated having them all this week.
Florida State has outscored its first three opponents 176-3. The Seminoles also lead the nation in five defensive categories, yet the most telling number is three — the number of times an opponent has reached the red zone.
“Handling that environment, being able to communicate and having good ball security, not having some stupid penalties, that’s going to be a big part of it,” Swinney said.
Games such as this are why Brent Venables was hired as defensive coordinator. Clemson ranks 56th nationally in total defense and 84th against the run. Dual-threat quarterbacks haunted Clemson the past three seasons, and EJ Manuel, 12th nationally in pass efficiency, can be a load on the run at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds.
Florida State’s big-play potential could be a problem for a team that’s been burned too frequently. Furman needed three plays in an 85-yard drive for its only touchdown.
“One of the key factors is the explosive plays,” Venables said. “Sometimes you can lose that battle against a lesser opponent and still win the game. Against evenly matched teams, that can be a huge deciding factor.”
Swinney thrives in the role of underdog yet he insisted the team won’t prepare with any more focus or intensity than it did for Furman or Ball State. His answers were uncharacteristically short during his weekly news conference. He said the team understands the game’s implications.